The Ins & Outs of Livestock Registration

Increase their value and protect your hard work.

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courtesy Victoria Reck Ames
A registered American Milking Devon raised at Honey Hill Hiertage Devons, located in Swanzey, New Hampshire.

Should you really do all the work involved in registering your livestock? All the applications, fees, tagging, and more can seem unnecessary and time-consuming, especially if the majority of your animals are destined for the freezer. But there are advantages to maintaining a registered herd, even on a small scale.

Why You Should Register

Registering livestock can, in many cases, increase an animal’s value. Prospective buyers will often pay more for livestock with registration papers. Not only do the papers prove that the animal is indeed a member of a specific breed, but they can also give the new owner some idea of what to expect in terms of performance. In addition, it shows that you value your animals.

Certain sires and dams in every breed have reputations — sometimes good and sometimes bad. Finding certain names in a pedigree can prepare the new owner for not only what the animal is capable of, but what abilities his or her offspring could likely inherit.

For example, the American Quarter Horse is a breed that can shine at a variety of different jobs, but a horse with parents that excel in cattle and ranch work will be more likely to do well at that job than one with different bloodlines. Not that any horse can’t be trained to do well at those jobs, but having parents that excelled at the type of work you expect from your new horse will give you a greater degree of confidence that the animal should be able to perform well.

Inbreeding is a continuous concern, especially with rare breeds, and registering your animals helps your breed association to monitor if certain sires are being overused, so they can encourage the use of other sires. While technology, such as artificial insemination, gives breeders access to sires they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to use, it can also lead to popular sires becoming overrepresented. This has happened in several breeds, most notably the Holstein. Overuse of a handful of sires known for one or two desirable traits has led to a population that, while numerous, is suffering from a lack of genetic diversity.

Types of Registries

The type of registry most people are familiar with is the traditional “closed herdbook” registry. For an animal to qualify for registration, both sire and dam must also be registered. Each association has different policies, but only in the rarest of cases will animals be allowed in if both parents are lacking papers.

Generally speaking, registering offspring is the responsibility of the owner of the dam.

To register an animal, an application is submitted to the registry, usually one application for each individual. An exception is in the case of swine, where the entire litter can be registered, and then, once the best animals are identified, they can be issued individual certificates.

By contrast, an “open herdbook” will accept animals without registered parents, but animals must meet the standards for appearance, and the known history of the herd must support their inclusion. There are very few registries that are open, and these are usually for rare breeds that are adding new populations as they’re discovered. Most open herdbooks eventually move to closed ones after it’s relatively certain that no new groups are likely to be discovered.

How it Works

Because each breed has specific traits that are considered valuable, each association and registry has different rules. For example, Navajo-Churro sheep require inspection, whether in person by a trained inspector, or by submitting a wool sample to inspectors who will verify that the fiber retains the qualities that make the wool and the breed unique.

While most registration papers will contain pedigree information when it’s known, don’t confuse a handwritten or typed pedigree with the official registration certificate from the breed association. The certificate means the information has been verified by a neutral party (the association), and is as accurate as possible. A pedigree, while valuable, doesn’t have the same level of authentication as the certificate.

Whatever the breed, some form of permanent identification is almost always required for registration. This can be a tag, tattoo, or brand, or, in some cases, a microchip. Some associations for breeds that have a high degree of physical variability, such as Pineywoods cattle or Arapawa goats, require photos of the individual animal as well. These become part of the permanent record of the animal with the association, and in case of lost paperwork, can be used to verify that the animal is indeed what it’s supposed to be.

Tattoos and microchips are permanent and not easily altered, but the downside is that the animal will have to be in hand, in some way or another, to verify identity. They also require the animal to be restrained to administer. Brands are also permanent, but are somewhat more difficult to administer, and questions arise about how humane branding is. Tags have the advantage of being relatively easy to apply, even for an inexperienced person, and they can be seen from a distance. The drawback is that they can be removed.

Some associations that register larger and more valuable animals, such as horses and some breeds of cattle, will also require DNA typing. This is relatively easy to do, and is usually done by collecting a hair sample.

Most associations collect some type of fee for registering animals. Depending on the breed, some registration fees are quite expensive, while others can cost only a few dollars. Many rare breed associations make registration free for members, in order to make it as easy as possible for members to submit applications. In the case of breeds numbering only a few hundred individuals, capturing information on every animal is critical.

Paper Trail

It’s the seller’s responsibility to transfer registration paperwork to the new owner. In a perfect transaction, the seller will give the buyer a copy of the registration certificate, and will submit the original to the association for transfer to the new owner. This allows the association to keep track of where each animal has gone.

Sometimes, however, sellers will give the originals to the new owners for them to submit, which works so long as the new owners actually do it. Oftentimes, though, good intentions go awry and the paperwork doesn’t get filed. This is problematic in that it provides a chance for animals to be lost to the association, and the breed. If papers are lost, and animals are sold again without paperwork, it can become challenging, if not impossible, to recover those animals into the breed.

This can be a huge disappointment to new owners who purchase animals in good faith that they’re registered, only to find out that they’re not — and depending on the rules of the association, registration may not be recoverable.

For a small, critically endangered breed that only registers a handful of animals a year, this can be a catastrophic loss. Most small associations value recovering purebred animals and will put forth every effort to make sure all individuals that can be registered or recovered are, but this requires a tremendous amount of work — effort that could be avoided if breeders and owners only take the time to make sure paperwork is submitted properly.

Heritage Breed Conservation

In the case of an organization such as The Livestock Conservancy (TLC), data submitted by breed associations informs which breeds are included on the Conservation Priority List (CPL), and in which category.

Registration numbers are the only objective data TLC can use to accurately track population data, and while they understand that there will inevitably be animals that slip through the cracks and are lost to the registered population, data from associations is the only verifiable information they have to go on. TLC maintains relationships with associations governing the breeds on the CPL, and every year asks for registration data for the previous year to help categorize breeds and make sure their resources are going where they’re needed most.

One of the functions of a breed association is member support and outreach. Raising awareness of the good qualities of a breed takes time, and often money. Registration fees pay for more than the paper you’re given; they help the breed association fund those efforts. Websites, promotional material, and advertisement in publications are all a result of an active membership base that takes care to register their animals and pay the required fees. If you raise a particular breed, you benefit from the association’s efforts, directly and indirectly. This is especially true of breeds with critically low numbers.

Maybe you have all that pedigree information in your head. You know it, so what does it matter to anyone else? Consider what might happen if someone had to assume ownership of your herd under unfortunate circumstances. If you haven’t registered your animals, and you’re no longer able to provide that information, the animals you’ve carefully selected for several generations are worth no more than grade animals. If no one can verify what they are, they may be very likely to be sold at the sale barn. And then all your years of hard work go down the drain.

Are there any instances when registration doesn’t make sense? A few. Most commercial cow-calf operations won’t register calves destined for the feed lot. Most of the time, though, those operations will make use of bulls that are registered and have pedigrees and data to back up their selection as herd sires. Also, if you’re absolutely certain that some of your animals are destined for the home freezer, it may not make sense to register those. But registering the ones that are good enough to be breeding stock will help provide data to the association, and keep the best in the registry loop.

All in all, if you’re going to raise a purebred animal, the advantages to keeping your herd registered and up to date far outweigh any disadvantages. It takes a little time and effort, but a record of your hard work can be invaluable.

By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, and by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. Between the two places, she’s learned to manage all sorts of livestock and livestock challenges.